You run a news website, want to allow users to comment on articles and other content, but want the conversations to be on-topic, informative, and most important, civil.

If this sounds familiar, as a local media provider you might have turned to trusted people in your communities to help moderate comment threads. Problem solved? Not without a good chance of side effects on the moderators themselves, according to research findings released Thursday, July 18, by the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

Moderating Uncivil Comments cover page
Cover page of the new research report, Moderating Uncivil Comments Hurts Trust in News.

The CME research report, Moderating Uncivil Comments Hurts Trust in Newsfound that comment moderators who focused efforts exclusively on uncivil content:

  • Perceived the news outlet they were working for as less trustworthy.
  • Were more emotionally exhausted.
  • Were less satisfied with the task of moderation.
  • Had a less immersive work experience (the report defines an immersive work experience as “a sense of ‘flow’ in a task that makes it feel less effortful”).

The report explains the methodology:

Participants were asked to moderate 78 comments each – a task that took them on average 24 minutes. They were told they were moderating the comments for an unidentified news site and were randomly assigned to moderate either all uncivil comments, all civil comments, or a mix of civil and uncivil comments. For each comment, participants decided if it should be accepted for publication on a news site or rejected based on how uncivil the comment was. Then they answered a series of questions about how much they trusted the news outlet, as well as how they felt about having to do this task. We found that moderating only uncivil comments led to negative effects.

Researchers Martin J. Riedl, Gina Masullo Chen and Kelsey N. Whipple recommend that news organizations focus on keeping comments sections civil. “News sites can do this by having journalists engage in comments sections and by encouraging higher-quality conversations,” the report said.